Deer in the Wood

Narrative Design in Video Games: Inter­acting with the Deer in the Woods

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The first story ever told probably went something like this:

I saw a deer in the woods. I tried to catch it. It got away.”

Look at that master­piece. It really has it all. A gorgeous forested setting, a struggle between two opposing forces, and a solid emotional roller coaster of a story arc. You may think it’s not much of a story and you’d be right. When we get right down to it, story­telling has come a long way since the first story ever told. Humanity has iterated and improved on the tools we use and story­telling is no exception. We’ve gone from oral tradi­tions, to carving in clay, to printing presses, to film, with quite a few formats sprinkled in between. It’s fair to say humans love coming up with new ways to tell stories almost as much as we love telling them.

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Perhaps the greatest character in storytelling history right here.

And that’s really the truth of humanity: we love telling stories. They’re not just a great tool for explaining the evening’s dinner escaped into the woods; it’s an essential part of how we commu­ni­cate our thoughts, feelings, and ideas to one another. Stories are how we learn about our world and each other.

And video games are the most recent step in the long line of tech­niques we use to teach and learn.

Are video games really all that different from films though? Do they deserve to be consid­ered the next step” of story­telling? I am contrac­tu­ally obligated as a narrative designer to say yes. What’s a narrative designer? We’ll get to that in a moment.

To establish why games are different, we need to look at the Passive to Inter­ac­tive scale. This scale is all about what decisions you make as a story’s audience.

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I’m going to be honest with you, the placement of those lines is pretty arbitrary. The point is there are different levels at which we as audience members interact with story­telling, and these hand-picked examples are relative to one another.

Film: We don’t really make any decisions as audience members. We may fill in the blanks between scenes by pretending the action star did some push ups before invading the enemy warehouse, but that’s the extent to which we get to decide anything.

Liter­a­ture: We have a bit more freedom here. Imagining setting and character visuals is usually up to us. We can decide how a lightly described sword fight played out beat by beat, but we don’t decide where the story goes.

Video Games: This is where we get truly inter­ac­tive. Games give us the ability to decide how the story goes or even how it ends. Maybe we can dress however we want or fight however we want. No two play expe­ri­ences have to be exactly the same.

Table Top: The royalty of inter­ac­tivity. Table top games like Dungeons and Dragons give us the ability to change the story in real time as often as we like. Many tear-stricken game masters will tell you stories rarely end the way they envi­sioned.

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This very sad game master from the 80’s has players who never listen to world lore.

But what about choose-your-own-adventure books? Or linear video games?” Fair points. Story­telling has so many varied forms and these are just a few examples of how it can go. Even within these examples, there is a wide variety of inter­ac­tivity. But we’re talking about video games specif­i­cally here, and one of the people who helps decide that level of inter­ac­tivity is the narrative designer.

Video game devel­opers have been defining what a narrative designer is for years. Why don’t we call them writers? What level of involve­ment do they have in the creative process? What do they bring to the table?

You know what? Let’s go ahead and pick through those questions together.

Why don’t we call them writers?

Some studios do! However, it really benefits us to establish a continuum of respon­si­bil­i­ties for different titles and labels. And here’s the big idea. If you take nothing else away today, take this:

Writers tell stories with words. Narrative designers tell stories with buttons.

While writing a document describing a wondrous world of whimsy and magic filled with fleshed-out char­ac­ters is essential to story­telling, video games have an entire toolset to which no other medium has access: keyboards, controllers, mouses, and buttons. When you press a button, something happens in the game. And that’s where the narrative designer lives.

What level of involve­ment do they have in the creative process?

Contrary to what some people believe, a narrative designer is not the first stop for a game idea.

The story isn’t even neces­sarily the first stop for game devel­op­ment. A game can start from anywhere: a fun mechanic, an art style, or even a graphics benchmark. The truth is the story is one of the most flexible elements of a game.

If a character model needs to change, that may be days or weeks of work for an artist. More than likely, it’s less work for the narrative designer to change the story of that character.

If a mechanic like jumping needs to become flying, that’s a massive shift in scope for the game. But the narrative designer can pivot, creating context for why the people of the game world fly instead of jump. Maybe the people of the world become winged creatures. If so, it’s time to have a conver­sa­tion with the animators and character modelers. Wings are out of scope? Maybe the people of the world use happy thoughts to fly instead.

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It works for some people.

And that’s the level of involve­ment in the creative process a narrative designer really should have. The ability to work within the constraints of the game, the skill to pivot and still tell an engaging story, and an under­standing of how to use game mechanics to support the narrative.

What do they bring to the table?

Think of your favorite game. Does it have a story? Most do. Now think of that game without a story. How long would you play that game? Maybe the mechanics are really fun and you’d still play it for the rest of your natural life. But a great narrative designer who can use those mechanics to tell a great story is going to keep you coming back until it’s over.

When we commu­ni­cate thoughts, feelings, and ideas to one another in story form, we make a connec­tion between story­teller and audience. This connec­tion keeps the audience engaged, or wanting to continue hearing the story. Maybe because the story is inter­esting. Maybe because it’s infu­ri­ating. Maybe because it’s teaching us something.

Whatever the reason the audience stays engaged, a narrative designer pulls players through the game by making and main­taining that connec­tion.

Now we come to this:

Video games are a unique inter­ac­tive form of story­telling in which narrative designers use buttons to create engage­ment.

But what does that mean in practice? I’ll leave you with the very best example of narrative design in what I believe to be the greatest narrative game ever made.

Spoiler Warning for Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

If you haven’t finished Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, I encourage you to do so and then come back and finish this article. I promise I’ll wait.

All finished? What a ride, right? The narrative does its job pulling you through the story with the desire to save your father. The puzzles are fun and support the narrative by seam­lessly incor­po­rating the world and its envi­ron­ment. The lack of dialogue in a recog­niz­able language makes the creators rely on body language and context.

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Two brothers, two joysticks - it almost designs itself!

While all of these elements create an incred­ible gaming expe­ri­ence, it’s the moment at the end of the game that acts as a perfect example of narrative design. Throughout the entire game, each joystick on the controller controls one of the brothers. When one brother perma­nently dies in the story, the joystick to which he was assigned perma­nently goes dead and does absolutely nothing.

I get chills just writing it. The feeling of a dead joystick in your hand after hours and hours of it working is a story­telling moment no film, book, or tabletop game could ever recreate.

And that’s what we mean when we say narrative design is about game mechanics. Writers make dialogue, plot out the story, and create compelling char­ac­ters in all kinds of mediums, but only a narrative designer can do all that while making the audience feel the misery of a deceased family member through inter­ac­tion.